Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Eating out in the centre: The Hampshire and Tuttons

This weekend, I ended up having two un-pre-planned meals in London's tourist hot spots -- on Leicester Square and in Covent Garden.

First, was dinner at The Hampshire Bar & Restaurant, part of the plush Radisson Edwardian chain. We were en-route to the theatre, it was sunny and there were tables outside.

The biggest 'pro' was the people watching (where else would you see a couple of dozen of superheroes trying and failing to push a bemused London taxi?).
The biggest 'con' was the slow service (you are on Leicester Square, you will be busy, hire more staff). After half an hour we enquired how much longer it would be for the starters, and were told it would be 15 more minutes - time we simply didn't have to spare with the theatre waiting. We never got the condiments seen on other tables, plus had to repeat requests for water (for which we had to share glasses as apparently they didn't have enough) and for the bill.

The food - from a classic European style menu - was decent enough though, and not too unreasonably priced considering the location. We sampled the fillet of beef (£20) with a nice dauphinoise gratin (though, of course, not enough cheese for my liking) and a peppery jus, and the rib eye (£16) with bearnaise and beautiful jenga-like chips, crisped to perfection thanks to more than one session in the fryer.
The portions were a good size.
Both cuts of meat were very nice, but comparing them together I found to my surprise that I prefer the stronger flavour of the rib to the more silky and pricier fillet.

We washed it down with a cherry-scented Rioja (£22) and Pimms. The latter seemed staggeringly pricy to me at £8, until it was pointed out that the tag probably reflected standard cocktail priced rather than (weak) spirit and mixed ones.

The following day, struck by hunger and shopping fatigue in Covent Garden, we ended up in Tuttons, which I later discovered is part of a mini empire of eateries around the old flower market.
The white table cloths and modern art on the walls strove for a moderately classy atmosphere.

We started with a bowl of pretty decent olives (£1.95), which was just as well as the bread baskets delivered to other tables never graced ours.
Despite the place being largely empty, the wait for the main course felt pretty long. The fillet of sea-bass (£14.95) was well cooked, with a crispy skin. The accompanying "tomato and black olive gnocchi" was a disappointment though, featuring bog standard gnocchi (from a packet?) alongside chopped up black olives and tomatoes. We also tried the fish of the day with a moreish beurre blanc sauce and green beans.

The waiter-recommended glasses of white Rioja (£5.75) and a new-world-style Chilean Sauvignon Blanc (£4.13) were very nice, but the experience was soured by service at the end.

No one seemed to want to take our card - not even if after we got up and put on coats. And then, when he was finally cornered, the waiter asked if we wanted to leave him a tip on top of the included service charge. We suggested that perhaps we did not, at which point he went on a major rant about how the service charge was shared between all the staff rather than kept by the individual waiters. Surely that's fairer anyway - the guys in the kitchen contribute as much, and often much more, to my enjoyment of a meal than the front of house.

The verdict: The quality of food on the tourist trail - at least in London - has improved immeasurably over the years, and you can now get a pretty decent meal.
Be prepared for (very) slow service though.
Of course, with a bit of research, there are also some real gems only a stone’s throw away even from the ultra-touristy areas.

The Hampshire Bar and Restaurant, Radisson Edwardian Hampshire Hotel, Leicester Square , WC2H 7LH; Tel. 0207 666 0902; Tube: Leicester Square

Tuttons Brasserie & Bar, 11/12 Russell Street, Covent Garden, WC2B 5HZ; Tel. 0207 257 8625; Tube: Covent Garden

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Market Coffee House

I am not sure I really like Spitalfields any more. Sure thre are still some gems in the area, but in all the regeneration, they seem to have swapped is shabby charm for what looks like one of those computer-generated vistas of a shiny modern development.

But hey, I was in the area, I was short of time, and I was hungry.
Alas, my visions of yummy delicacies from the overpriced posh food stalls were punctured by the stalls being shut - on a Saturday. I didn't have time for a proper meal so settled for a cafe on the still slightly shaby opposite side of the street.

The board outside laid claim to "the best toasted sandwiches" - so I put it to the test with a cheese and onion number (3.20).
It failed. The bread had been toasted for too long for my liking, but the main problem was the filling to dough ratio, with many mouthfuls detecting little or not cheese.
Kruger do a far superior version which costs 70 pence less, yet features no fewer than three cheeses, as well as wild mushrooms and tomatoes on top of the onions offered here.

I also tried their special ice Darjeeling tea (2.00). It looked beautiful in the (rather small) glass, served with a wedge of orange and a sprig of mint. The first few sips were horribly sweet, masking any other flavours, though the drink improved with the melting of the ice cubes.

All in all it was a pretty disappointing experience and I doubt I'll be back for the food. But the coffees are reasonably priced and it's not a bad place for alcohol free people watching on a sunny day (though be prepared to be accosted by the odd passing beggar).

Market Coffee House, 52 Brushfield Street, Spitalfields, E1 6AG; Tube: Liverpool Street

Monday, May 19, 2008


The location: Exmouth Market – especially lovely on a warm, sunny day.

The spec: Spanish/North African cuisine served up by a Sam & Sam Clarke. (Would you ever marry, or even go out with someone who had the same name as you?) The place is perennially popular -- even on Monday night they are fully booked, but manage to squeeze us in at the bar.

The disappointing: The menu. I don't know why, but somehow every time I come here, nothing at the menu really grabs me.

The good: The very friendly service. The food.
We start with a plate of chorizo from the bar tapas menu. The two thick slices, curled and charged from the grilling, don't seem little a lot for £4, but every moist, spicy bite says it's worth it.
I follow with the succulent wood roasted chicken, served with a warm, yoghurty, walnutty pasta salad (£18.00). It's delicious and the pickled radishes which initially put me off ordering the dish don't taste picked at all.
The husband goes for wood roasted Middle White pork -- and the waiter very kindly offers and extra helping of crisp crackling (£18.50). The meat comes with Moorish flavours of spinach, red onions, pine nuts and raisins.

We ask the waiter about the house white -- he offers us a taste (as he said, it’s “very drinkable”, but no more), and suggests a much nicer bottle from the Spanish list -- a Verdejo/Sauvignon mix (£18.50) which has the zesty zing I usually associate with New Zealand.

The verdict: Friendly and delicious. Though alas too busy and a bit too expensive to be a regular haunt.

Moro, 34 - 36 Exmouth Market, EC1R 4QE; Tel. 020 7833 8336; Tube: Angel;

Friday, May 16, 2008


The location: Smack bang in the middle of the city.

The spec: Modern European business lunches in a fairly formal setting.

The good: That someone else was paying. The delectable petit fours -- of those I sampled, one was intense with lemon, another gooey with chocolate... But then they did charge us an astonishing £4.95 each for coffees - does that make it the most expensive single espresso in Lonond?!

The disappointing: The food - largely because it had been recommended by colleagues, but also because my enjoyment of it was quite disproportionate to the hefty a la carte price tag.
The starter of "ravioli of native blue lobster and Aramgnac bisque" was merely OK -- one solitary pasta parcel, with a mouthful of non-blue-coloured lobster, sat a top a pool of seafoody tasting foam. For £14.95, I want more taste wow, and more food.
The slow cooked belly of pork (£17.95), to my huge disappointment, did not have a crispy skin. I struggled to finish it. The accompanying pearl barley was in a beigey sauce was OK, if a little odd, and I couldn't detect the advertised chorizo.

The verdict: Don't think I'll be back - there are better places near by.

Bonds, 5 Threadneedle Street, EC2R 8AY; Tel. 020 7657 8090; Tube: Bank

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


The location: Very handy - just a few paces away from King's Cross station (and a few more from St. Pancras). And very clever, hidden away in a court yard, which means you can enjoy the sun on the outdoor tables without inhaling (too much) of the traffic fumes.

The spec: A tapas joint with a funky, warehouse-like look. Voted Britain's Best Bar in this year's Observed Food Monthly awards.

The good: The outside terrace. The price - two huge tapas plates and two rounds of soft drinks come in at just over 30 quid. The beer selection, which includes lots of unusual bottles (I'm being good this time though, so don't try any.)

The bad: The decidedly average: The food. I can't taste the olive oil or the garlic in the limp pan con tomate, and the sprinkling of dried chives doesn't win any bonus points. The cheese and spinach croquettes are pretty tasteless (though the meat ones aren't half bad), and the calamari are overpowered by the batter. I didn't much like their olives either. The tortilla, the chorizo, the sliced meat selection and the slice of manchengo are pretty nice though, if nothing special.

The verdict: I'll come back to try the beer next time I'm in the area. But for tapas in London, so far Barrafina has no challengers (that I've visited).

The post script: I've been a bit busy with work and things recently, so the restaurants in need of posting have been piling up. This new, shorter format is a bit of an experiment to get me through the backlog.

Camino, The Regent Quarter, King's Cross N1 9AF; Tel: 020 7841 7331; Tube: King's Cross;

Monday, May 12, 2008

Hoxton Grille

The location: Bang in the middle of Hoxton/Shoreditch trendiness, in the Hoxton hotel, the brain child of the man who founded Pret. You can buy breakfast and booze from reception and if you are lucky they even do special offers on rooms for a quid.

The spec: A trendy yet cosy space ran by the Grille chain. You can also have cocktails and snacks (eg mini burgers) in the comfy chairs in the lobby, overhung by stunning paper eagles.

The good: I like the paper birds, the vibe and the super friendly service.
The rump steak (15) is a very good cut, beautifully served on a wooden board with a mini-bucket of crispy chips (Yes, I know this kind of presentation is over-used these days, but I still find it cute.)
The Marquis red house wine (3.85) and the amazing alcohol-free fruit cocktail (2.50) they offered to knock up for the husband suffering from the excesses of the night before.

The bad: The veggie lasagna (10) - it's just very bland.
And the fact that if we'd been less dithery and got there 10 minutes earlier we could have had the steak for an astounding seven quid as part of their early bird deal.

The verdict: Will be back for more steak next time we are in the area before 7pm. And may be for cocktails if someone else is paying :-)

Hoxton Grille, 81 Great Eastern Street, EC2A 3HU; Tel. 0207 739 9111; Tube: Old Street

Sunday, May 11, 2008


Few things beat a random, middle of the week day off spent doing very little other than having a long, leisurely lunch somewhere posh.
Hibiscus -- Michelin-starred and recently transported from button-cute Ludlow to snooty Mayfair -- fits the bill perfectly with its unbelievable £25 three course lunchtime set menu.
Inside, it is surprisingly small and very brown - right down to the browny golden hat-shaped glass plates on the place settings. Quite a few of the customers seem to be regulars, warmly greeted by the friendly and numerous waiting staff.

First comes a freebie of soup, served in an egg shell, with the runny yolk nestling underneath the delicate vegetable (I think it was asparagus) liquid. It looks stunning inside the huge white circle of the plate and taste brilliant save for the tiny bit of runny egg white left on the yolk.
There is also bread with very creamy butter.

The carpaccio is as good as any I've had, and I also enjoy the richness of the mango ice cream -- though perhaps not in the same mouthful as the meat.

A giant ravioli (raviolo?) is plump with delicate cod brandade with (luckily!) not very detectable liquorish root.

Next is Cornish silver mullet with crispy skin and

suffolk guniea fowl stuffed with mushroom with creamy mash.
I don't spot the advertised douglas fir, though it's probably just as well as I am not sure a 20 to 100 metre tree would fit in the restaurant, let alone on the plate.

For desert, we have an Italian shortbread with strawberries, strawberry gel, curd cheese ice cream... and an utterly amazing chocolate creation.

With a couple of aperetifs and a bottle of wine (a very nice Torrontes for just £16.75), the bill comes to £5 less than I paid earlier that week for an utterly average two course lunch for two in Chez Gerard.

Hibiscus, 29 Maddox Street, W1S 2PA; Tel. 0207 629

Tuesday, May 06, 2008


A fashion for supper clubs seems to be sweeping through London, and it's one I throughly approve of. After Pigalle, we decided to checkout the Brickhouse, which has taken over a corner of the old Truman Brewery on the more fashionable end of Brick Lane, past all the hard-sell curry houses. (Oops, seems I never wrote up Pigalle...but it was very nice!)

It is a small, tall space, with a few tables on the ground floor and banquettes on the balcony overlooking the stage. It's also very white and industrial/minimalist looking - a bit more old-school glamour might have suited the ethos better.

Like in Pigalle, the food is moulded into a rather pricey set menu, but then there's no additional charge for entertainment -- on our visit a 1940s style band complete with army uniforms, preceded by some Betty Boop cartoons!

The menu sounded complicated with swirls of this and foams of that, but in the end the main ingredients were well-cooked, well-portioned and thus able to shine through. The rare tuna was very nice, while the foam effect softened the punch of the wasabi so as not to overpower the fish.

The honey roast quail was also good, even though I couldn't really taste the black truffle sauce.

The braised pork belly was beautifully crisp (to my horror I have discovered that crispness is not obligatory), served with lots of buttery brown shrimps.

The fillet of beef was rare as requested, though I would have preferred a good old-fashioned peppercorn sauce to the actual accompaniment of mustard ice cream.

The weird-flavoured ice cream was also not entirely successful in a stilton variant, served with two tiny warm eccles cakes. To me, the cakes were a bit too sweet and the ice cream lacked the svaouriness of a pure cheese to offset that.

The rosemary ice cream that came with the apple tarte tatin though was rather good, and the husband also liked the caramel milk shake in a mini glass with a mini straw.

Wine list split into good (from 15), great (mid 20s to mid 30s) and gorgeous (upto 179 in the reds). The food is set at 39.50 for 2 courses, though they sometimes have special offers to reduce this at the start of the week.

In all, the food was much more hit and less miss than one generally expects (or gets) in an entertainment-focused venue, and the band was great fun. It's not the cheapest night out, but I'd say it was decent enough value for money if you stick to the 'good' wine (we liked the Sangiovese for 18) and try and time your visit to coincide with a special offer. Shame about the lack of glamour though.

The Brickhouse, 152c Brick Lane, E1 6RU; Tel. 0207 247 0005 Tube: Aldgate East;

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Hix Oyster & Chop House

Mark Hix ran the Caprice empire for many years, and his many books on British cooking are piled high on the new restaurant's shelves.
The room hasn't really changed from the Rudland & Stubbs days -- black furniture and bar, white table cloths and walls and an unpolished wooden floor. The decor vibe is somehow modern yet comforting, and reminiscent of the near-by St John. The only additions seem bizarre -- a slightly messy looking open-plan service station in the middle of the room, and what we think is supposed to be an open-plan oyster kitchen but on our 9pm+ visit looked more like a washing up area.
The place hasn't been open long, so I guess service-wise it may take them a bit longer to get into their stride. There were plenty of free tables, but we were told to wait at the bar for 10 minutes. Luckily, their table-laying skills proved more efficient than they'd estimated and we were ushered to a table as soon as we'd balanced our bums on the high stools.

The menu was an interesting read, with plenty of unusual dishes. I was tempted by the St George's mushrooms, which I'd never heard of before, and chose to have them in the guinea fowl soup (£6.50). When I ordered, the waiter beamed and said it was very good. It arrived in a miniature lidded pot, and I momentarily wondered if I'd underestimated my hunger. But it proved surprisingly filling, creamy and indeed delicious. The husband snuck a good few mouthfuls.

He had decided to test their chops, opting for a bacon one, served with a pile of cockles(£12.75) and laverbread. The latter, it turns out, isn't bread at all, but some kind of seaweed and a much prized delicacy in Wales, where they have it with bacon and cockles for breakfast! It was very tasty, with the salty and juicy bacon contrasting with the delicate crustaceans (so either we are less fussy than Dos Hermanos, or the food's improved).
But we did wish the waiter had insisted (or even suggested) that we considered side orders. Still, on request, he happily brought another round loaf of warm, home-baked tasting white bread served on wooden board with lusciously creamy butter (£0).

To finish, we shared a Welsh rarebit (£7). It's one of my favourite dishes, and I couldn't fault this example -- at least not until the husband pointed that the one at St John is at least as good, but twice as big and £2 cheaper.
We washed the dinner down with a £14 temparanillo, a decidedly average bottle and the cheapest offering on a wine list which very quickly vaulted into the £20+ range. The beer selection may be a better bet next time, with lots of ales and stouts to choose from.
The meal took over an hour and a half, which seemed excessive as we ordered pretty much as soon as we sat down, asked for the rarebit as our mains plates were cleared and for the bill when the cheesy toast arrived.
Still, the food was delicious and reasonably priced, there are plenty more things on the menu I'd like to try, plus it's within easy stumbling distance of home. So I am sure we will be back next time we can't get into Vinoteca.

Hix Oyster & Chop House, 36-37 Greenhill Rents, Cowcross Street (so named because cows used to cross here on their way to an early death at Smithfield market), EC1M 6BN; Tube: Barbican or Farringdon;